Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.03.04

Elaine Fantham, Lucan, De Bello Civili Book II. Cambridge: Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics, 1992. Pp. x + 244. $59.95 (hb). $22.95 (pb). ISBN 0-521-41010-X (hb). ISBN 0-521-42241-8 (pb).

Reviewed by Catherine Connors, University of Washington.

Lucan's de Bello Civili is remarkable for its elimination of certain elements which had come to be viewed as standard in epic poetry. Instead of traditional anthropomorphic gods and displays of recognizably epic heroism, Lucan offers a battlefield free of the gods' interference and heroes who do not measure up to their poetic ancestors. In a not entirely dissimilar way, Professor Fantham's splendid new commentary on de Bello Civili II is remarkable as much for what is absent as for what is present. Instead of apologies for studying Lucan, assertions of obvious inferiority to Virgil and catalogues of literary and historical deficiencies, elements which have come to seem standard in many (though not all) studies of Lucan, F. offers a steadfast and energetic commitment to discovering the poetic achievements which are present in the BC. One difficulty of appreciating Lucan is that his poem engages with both poetic and prose sources; F. assiduously explores the deeper literary significances of its uses of Virgil's Aeneid, historical accounts of the war, and elements of natural philosophy.

Like others in this successful series, this volume offers a full-scale commentary and a general introduction which addresses Lucan's life and work, the poem's language, style and versification, and its relation to epic tradition and historical sources. The text of BC II is printed without an apparatus criticus, but there is a convenient synopsis of its differences from the editions of Housman, Luck and Shackleton Bailey and textual issues are fully discussed in the commentary. Helpful ancillary materials include: two maps; a chronological table; comparisons of Lucan, Caesar, and the Periochae of Livy; and appendices on Petronius Sat. 118-124 (arguing that Petronius is not parodying perceived failings in Lucan's poem), on the capture of Corfinium, and on Cato and Seneca. A select bibliography is included as are full indices.

In the words of one recent critic, "Lucan is at his best when he has some pattern to follow, adapting, reversing or negating it."1 As the principal pattern against which to measure his story of the unmaking of the Roman republic in the civil war waged by Caesar and Pompey, Lucan chose Virgil's epic on the making of Rome. F. takes pains to point out that "it is the chief purpose of this introduction and commentary to serve those who have already read at least some books of the Aeneid; only they can savour both Lucan's love of Virgil and his fiercely competitive reaction" (ix). In her introductory discussion of Lucan's place within epic tradition, F. puts his relation to Virgil into broader perspective by examining elements which have previously been the grounds of negative criticism of Lucan: non-mythical subject matter, differences from Virgil, shifting alignments within political ideologies, rhetoric, and erudition. After establishing a comprehensive Roman context for the feature in question, F. proposes that each of these features is not a weakness but a strength: Lucan's historical subject is squarely within a traditional Roman conception of epic; his non-Virgilian approach is a reversal of ideals and values on display in the Aeneid; his ideological position evolving, but not insincere; his rhetoric not excessive but effective; his erudition not barren but grand.

F.'s discussion of Lucan's use of historical material is equally comprehensive and rich. After a survey of the sources, F. isolates Lucan's innovations and makes judicious suggestions about his intentions. In the first half of book 2, which recounts events at Rome, the long first-person recollection of Rome beset by civil strife under Marius and Sulla responds to literary tradition by serving as a counterpart to Aeneas' recollection of the destruction of Troy, and it is designed to "provide effects of horror and indignation which the mildness of Caesar's actual entry into Rome will not permit the poet in book 3" (p. 28). The invention of dramatic scenes for Cato at Rome presents him as a moral standard against which Caesar and others may be measured. F. also observes that in describing Caesar and Pompey's maneuvers at Corfinium and Brundisium in the second half of book 2, Lucan insures that "the narrative units are contrived to magnify Caesar's advance and to reduce Pompey's movements to an almost unbroken retreat and panic flight" (p.26).

In the commentary itself, F.'s analysis of this previously neglected book concisely presents a great deal of material from the traditions of epic, history and natural philosophy to illuminate a difficult text. Among those notes which I found especially helpful were: 7, on the background of the phrase parens rerum; 99-100, imagery and history in Lucan's representation of Marius; 718, on etymological punning on the name of the Symplegades. In addition, F.'s combination of scholarly thoroughness and literary acuity opens up a variety of further interpretive directions for students and scholars. I found of particular note: intro. to 234-325, on Cato's speech as a counterpart to single combat in traditional epic; 601-9, on the bull simile; 633-5, "Pompey's self-centred thinking distorts word order and expression;" 655-6, on links between Lucan's Caesar and Seneca's Atreus. F. also makes an effective case that Pompey's departure from Brundisium alludes to Aeneas' departures from Carthage and Troy, so that Pompey's unmaking of Rome is described in terms which recall Aeneas' founding of Rome. This use of Virgilian terms of reference to tell an anti-Aeneid extends to tiny details, as is evident, for example, in the comment on 724-5 (refugit / Lucifer ipse diem). F. remarks that the historical account of Pompey's departure at night is replaced by a departure at dawn like that of Aeneas from Troy, and points out, "The name Lucifer (Gk Phosphoros) suggests the bringer of day, as in Aen. 2.801-2 iamque iugis ... surgebat Lucifer .../ ducebatque diem, but L. revises his Virgilian model (see 690-1n.) to reinterpret the star as Pompey's analogue in flight." (Indeed, the adaptation of markers of the passage of time to matters at hand may even have been felt as a distinctively Virgilian poetic strategy: on Aeneid 11.183 Servius records a remark of Pollio: Asinius Pollio dicit, ubique Vergilium in diei descriptione sermonem aliquem ponere aptum praesentibus rebus, ut hoc loco, quia funerum et sepulturarum res agitur, dicit 'extulerat': item in quarto, quia est navigaturus Aeneas et relicturus Didonem, dicit <585> 'Tithoni croceum linquens Aurora cubile.')

One of the great strengths of the commentary overall is that its exemplary critical sophistication prompts newly detailed perceptions of Lucan's literary sophistication in matters ranging from minute allusions to broad interconnections with patterns of Roman culture. Not a word is wasted; even F.'s briefest observations have important literary consequences for the reading of this neglected and often disparaged poetry. By way of giving a sample, I select somewhat arbitrarily a few instances in which I found F.'s concise guidance particularly stimulating.

In discussing the old man's recollection of the Tiber flooded with corpses when Sulla gave the order for slaughter (209-20), F. analyzes Lucan's allusions to Achilles' battle with the Scamander and to the rhetorical tradition's detail of the Tiber choked with the dead on this occasion. F.'s balanced treatment of the BC's intertextual relations with both poetic and prose sources is characteristic of the commentary as a whole. On 220, F. also makes an important intratextual connection between the Tiber reddened with blood and the sea near Brundisium reddened with blood when two of Pompey's ships are captured (713). Indeed, one might use F.'s comment to argue further that throughout the BC Lucan builds up a pattern of waters polluted by bodies and blood. So, for example, at 8.33-4 Pompey departs from Greece where the Peneus flows to the sea stained with the blood of the battle at Pharsalus; the same fascination with corpses in or near water probably lies behind Lucan's apparent renaming of Cape Paliurus in Africa to Palinurus (9.42) in order to evoke memories of Aeneas' helmsman killed by local people when he made his way to the Italian shore. Already in book 1, the boundary between Italy and Gaul, the puniceus Rubicon (1.214), is transgressed by Caesar's decision to lead his troops across. Here the redness of the Rubicon puns etymologically on the rub-element of the river's name; perhaps in book 2 when the Tiber reddens with blood it too becomes a 'Rubicon' of a sort. The imagery of water stained by blood seems to operate throughout the poem as a foreshadowing of Pompey's murder on the shore of Egypt at the mouth of the Nile.2

F.'s discussion of Lucan's 'map' of Italy (392-438), which defines Italy's geography by its rivers and their relations to the Apennine range, provides ample background on comparable geographical excurses in other Greek and Roman authors; these remarks are also useful for understanding how geographical excurses function elsewhere in the BC. Her account of the map's design demonstrates that it is focused primarily on the sites of Caesar's and Pompey's actions, and her consequent argument against transposing 428-38 to follow 402 is decisive. F.'s analysis of the map further emphasizes that "the most conspicuous feature is the violent, aggressive language applied to the relationship of land and river or sea" (p. 156), and this is brought out well in individual notes. The violent language of geography is much in evidence in the centerpiece of Lucan's map, a 16-line description of the Eridanus, which recounts its size and power, tells of its role in extinguishing Phaethon's fiery ride, and compares it with the Nile and the lower Danube. Phaethon seems a particularly appropriate figure for an emphatic mythical excursus, since the myth gives a cosmic dimension to Lucan's imagery of dead bodies in rivers. As F. fleetingly suggests, the story of Phaethon's transgressive ride in the chariot of the sun and the consequent endangering of the cosmic order seems to operate allusively as part of Lucan's larger picture of civil war as a kind of dissolution of the cosmos.3 The Phaethon story is constructed as a disturbance and subsequent restoration of cosmic order by Ovid: as a result of Phaethon's ride, Earth says, in chaos antiquum confundimur, Met. 2.299, and the poet seems to bring the Metamorphoses straight back to its beginnings in cosmic chaos. Lucan alludes to this Ovidian line at BC 1.74, antiquum repetens iterum chaos, as he figures civil strife as cosmic disorder. While Lucan in book 1 takes from Ovid some of the cosmic dimensions of Phaethon's story, here he reverses Ovid's narrative structure: in Ovid, the Phaethon story frames a catalogue of rivers and other geographical features; in Lucan a geographical catalogue frames the story of Phaethon.

In her analysis of the narrative of Corfinium, F. points out that Lucan suppresses some stages of the historical events to focus on two dramatic exchanges of speeches: the confrontation over the river Aternus and Caesar's extension of clementia to Domitius. When Domitius decides to make a stand at Corfinium he tells his troops to destroy the bridge over the Aternus and addresses the river directly to ask for its aid. Here as elsewhere F.'s analysis articulates a number of helpful intertextual and intratextual connections. It is observed, for example, that at 485 Lucan describes the Aternus in terms which recall the Rubicon at 1.217-19; Caesar's success at Corfinium is thus in one way a reiteration of his initial crossing of the Rubicon. Following Lebek, F. remarks that Domitius' speech to the Aternus recalls the Scamander's appeal to the Simois at Iliad 21.311-14, and that in this way Caesar is presented as an Achilles figure. It is worth pausing to unpack F.'s comment on Domitius' deployment of his troops, nec plura locutus / devolvit rapidum nequiquam moenibus agmen (490-1): "combined with rapidum, devolvere (normally applied to violent natural forces as at 409 above) suggests headlong deployment; the descent to the Aternus was precipitate, and L. must have learnt this from his source." It seems to me that there may be a poetic as well as an historical motivation behind the word devolvit, which at 409, fewer than a hundred lines earlier, had described the flood of the Eridanus: F., like Lucan, goes just about as far as one can to suggest (without actually saying it) that Domitius and his troops here take on the characteristics of the ungovernable river he wants the Aternus to become. First Domitius allusively speaks like a Homeric river, then he acts like Lucan's own Eridanus.

From the commentary's wealth of insights, observations and contextualizations one could single out items from every page which are worthy of note or lead to further literary reflection. Suffice it to say that in the preparation of this commentary F. has done Lucan and his readers an extremely valuable and lasting service. Grammatical explanations are clear, and translation is used in the commentary only to supplement, not to substitute for, thorough analysis. Throughout, F.'s discussion of language and style guides readers to see that the compression and paradox which make Lucan difficult to read are also the source of a powerful urgency and intensity in his narrative. F.'s commentary is part of a recent surge of interest in Lucan,4 and while F. is not as self-consciously provocative as some of Lucan's champions, she is no less successful in elucidating his peculiar excellences. It has been a pleasure to use this book in my study and I look forward to using it soon in the classroom. Students may not find Lucan easy to read, but this edition will surely help them see that the struggle is worthwhile and even exciting.


  • [1] J. Bramble, "Lucan," in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, vol. 2, Latin Literature (Cambridge 1982), p. 543.
  • [2] On the force of the image of the death of Pompey throughout the BC, see most recently G. Most, "disiecti membra poetae: The Rhetoric of Dismemberment in Neronian Poetry," in Innovations of Antiquity, ed. R. Hexter and D. Selden (New York and London 1992), 391-419.
  • [3] F. compares 1.657 on 413; cf. the Adnotationes ad Lucanum reading 1.49 as an allusion to the Phaethon myth. Pompey's action may be cast in somewhat Phaethontic terms when he decides to flee rather than provoke more destruction: nec, sicut mos est miseris, trahere omnia secum / mersa iuvat gentesque suae miscere ruinae (7.654-5).
  • [4] W. R. Johnson, Momentary Monsters: Lucan and his Heroes (Ithaca 1987); John Henderson, "Lucan / the Word at War," The Imperial Muse, ed. A. J. Boyle (Berwick, Victoria, Australia 1988) 122-64; J. Masters, Poetry and Civil War in Lucan's Bellum Civile (Cambridge 1992).